United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
SHIRLEY PADMORE MENSAH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)
for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Nancy
A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
denying the application of Plaintiff Heather Miller
(“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security
Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., and for
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title
XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381,
et seq. (the “Act”). The parties
consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate
judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 10). Because
I find substantial evidence to support the decision denying
benefits, I will affirm the Commissioner's denial of
Factual and Procedural Background
was born on June 5, 1980, and was thirty-four years old as of
the date of the hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 533). She
testified that she has worked in the past as an assistant
manager at a fast-food restaurant, as a certified nurse's
assistant in a nursing home, and as a cashier at Casey's.
(Tr. 534-538). She testified that she left her most recent
job because of her carpal tunnel syndrome and pancreatitis.
(Tr. 538). She testified that she her carpal tunnel syndrome
causes pain, numbness, and a tendency to drop things (despite
a right carpal tunnel release in 2013); that she has diabetes
that has led to neuropathy in her feet; that she has
pancreatitis that causes abdominal pain; and that she has
pain in her lower back and the muscles of her legs. (Tr.
539-40, 543). She testified that she can stand for ten or
fifteen minutes before taking a break, can walk for about ten
minutes, and can sit for about half an hour at the most. (Tr.
545). With regard to the facts in the Plaintiff's medical
records, the Court adopts the facts set forth in
Plaintiff's Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts
(Doc. 14-1), and Defendant's Statement of Additional
Facts (Doc. 20-2). The Court will address specific facts as
needed to address the parties' arguments.
27, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging that
she has been unable to work since June 6, 2013. (Tr. 639-54).
Her applications were initially denied. (Tr. 576-80).
Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 583-87). On May 13, 2015,
following a hearing, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not under a
“disability” as defined in the Act. (Tr. 454-75).
Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with
the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council.
(Tr. 451-53). On June 30, 2016, the Appeals Council declined
to review the case. (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff has exhausted all
administrative remedies, and the decision of the ALJ stands
as the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social
Standard for Determining Disability Under the Act
eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a
claimant must prove he or she is disabled. Pearsall v.
Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001);
Baker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955
F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act
defines as disabled a person who is unable “to engage
in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or mental impairment which
can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can
be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than
12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A);
1382c(a)(3)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d
734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The impairment must be “of
such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous
work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work
experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful
work which exists in the national economy, regardless of
whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he
lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or
whether he would be hired if he applied for work.” 42
U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).
determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner
engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see also McCoy v.
Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing
the five-step process). At Step One, the Commissioner
determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in
“substantial gainful activity”; if so, then he is
not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i),
416.920(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step
Two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a
severe impairment, which is “any impairment or
combination of impairments which significantly limits [the
claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe
impairment, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii),
416.920(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three,
the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's
impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in
20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the
“listings”). 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648
F.3d at 611. If the claimant has such an impairment, the
Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the
Commissioner proceeds with the rest of the five-step process.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d);
McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.
to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's
“residual functional capacity”
(“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can
do despite [his or her] limitations.” Moore v.
Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20
C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). At Step Four, the
Commissioner determines whether the claimant can return to
his past relevant work, by comparing the claimant's RFC
with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's
past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv),
416.920(f); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant
can perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; if
the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step.
Id. At Step Five, the Commissioner considers the
claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to
determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to
other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot
make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found
disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v),
416.920(a)(4)(v); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.
Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that
he is disabled. Moore, 572 F.3d at 523. At Step
Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish
that, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work
experience, there are a significant number of other jobs in
the national economy that the claimant can perform.
Id.; Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1062, 1064
(8th Cir. 2012).
The ALJ's Decision
the foregoing five-step analysis, the ALJ here found that
Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since the alleged onset date, June 6, 2013; that Plaintiff
has the severe impairments of diabetes mellitus, peripheral
neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, and pancreatitis; and
that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 459-60). The ALJ found that
Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that
she can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can only
occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch; should never climb
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; should never crawl; is limited
to occasional handling, fingering, and feeling with the right
upper extremity; and should never be exposed to hazards such
as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. (Tr. 460).
The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her
past relevant work. (Tr. 469). However, relying on the
testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ
found that Plaintiff would be able to perform occupations
including counter clerk (Dictionary of Occupational Titles
(“DOT”) No. 249.366-010, light exertion level,
18, 000 jobs in the national economy), tanning salon
attendant (DOT No. 359.567-014, light exertion level, 1, 100
jobs in the national economy); and operator (DOT No.
237.357-014, sedentary exertion level, 12, 500 jobs in the
national economy). (Tr. 470). The ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the
Act, from June 6, 2013 through the date of his decision. (Tr.
challenges the ALJ's decision on two grounds: (1) that
the ALJ's RFC finding is too vague to allow meaningful
review or to satisfy the specificity required by regulation
and policy, because the ALJ limited Plaintiff to “light
work” instead of conducting a function-by-function
analysis; and (2) that the ALJ erred by relying upon VE
responses that were not supported by the DOT and lacked any
other basis or reasonable explanation.
Standard for Judicial Review
decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed if it complies
with the relevant legal requirements and is supported by
substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See
42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g); 1383(c)(3); Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Pate-Fires v.
Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009); Estes v.
Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 724 (8th Cir. 2002).
“Substantial evidence ‘is less than a
preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept
as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Renstrom
v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1063 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting
Moore, 572 F.3d at 522). In determining whether
substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's
decision, the court considers both evidence that supports
that decision and evidence that detracts from that decision.
Id. However, the court “‘do[es] not
reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ, and [it] defer[s]
to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of
testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by
good reasons and substantial evidence.'”
Id. at 1064 (quoting Gonzales v. Barnhart,
465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006)). “If, after
reviewing the record, ...